When you start to realize how Musk thinks about the world, there is something missing.
On Friday, Elon Musk sat down for an interview with Bill Maher for his HBO show Real Time Tonight. It was an interesting conversation. There were, however, three things Musk said that were particularly insightful, and that should be a concern for everyone.
By the way, I’m going to skip over the part where Musk and Maher talked about cancel culture and free expression. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. I literally type words on the internet for a living–free speech is very important to me. The problem is that I’m not sure Musk has a clear understanding of what free speech means, or if he’s just saying things he thinks sound good.
About Running Multiple Companies
Musk, who is the CEO of Twitter, SpaceX, Tesla, and Neuralink, clearly likes to work. “I’ve got a lot of jobs,” he told Maher. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Hard work is good, and Musk is nothing if not devoted to working all the time.
It seems as though Musk is trying to be involved in all of the things he thinks are necessary to bring about his vision for the future of the world. He clearly thinks that he alone is able to chart the course toward that vision. The problem is that he’s still only one person with the same amount of time every day as the rest of us. How he chooses to spend that time is the most important decision he can make.
One of the biggest criticisms of Musk, when he bought Twitter, was that his time was already spread thin between his various companies. For investors of Tesla, that was an especially big problem, as the company’s stock price fell by half since Musk announced he was spending $44 billion on the social media platform.
In his own defense, Musk says that enjoying your work is the key to happiness. “I mean, there’s two things I think to be able to be most happy,” Musk told Maher. “If you’re happy in love and you love your work, then you will be fully happy.”
I think we can all agree that people who love the work they do are generally more happy. But, just because you love your work doesn’t mean you’re good at it.
The thing is, running all those companies simply isn’t sustainable over the long term. That should worry anyone who cares about the mission of Tesla and SpaceX. If the thing Musk wants is for them to succeed, they need a dedicated full-time CEO. And yet, he believes he’s fully capable of being the leader they need.
SpaceX and Tesla are huge companies trying to tackle complex problems. Musk has certainly served those companies well as they were getting started, but at some point, his fascination with starting new projects means that he should let go and give each company the leadership they need.
About Resource Scarcity
The closest Maher got to challenging Musk on anything was a brief exchange about, of all things, water. It turns out that it might have been the most insightful part of the entire interview in terms of understanding the way Musk thinks–and, more important, why it’s a problem:
Musk: “I think we should be cautious about some of the civilizational decline. We have plummeting birth rates.”
Maher: “And also plummeting resources.”
Musk: “Resources will be fine.”
Maher: “But they’re not fine now.”
Musk: “I’m not suggesting complacency. We do want to move to a sustainable energy economy as quickly as possible, but we’re not in any danger of resource collapse.”
Maher: “But lots of people don’t have enough food. or water. We will run out of water they’re running out of sand.”
Musk: “Over 70% water by surface area.”
Maher: “You can’t drink that.”
Musk: “Desalination is absurdly cheap.
Maher: “When we do it.”
Musk: “It is done. There is a lot of desalination done. We’re not going to run out of water, I want to be clear.”
Yes, the surface of the earth is mostly covered in water, but that isn’t the same thing as having drinkable water coming out of your tap. More than two million people in the United States alone do not have regular access to clean drinking water. The problem is the infrastructure required to take the water Musk is referring to, remove the salt, and then transfer it to people’s homes and into their sinks. In many places, it’s simply not there.
We may not run out of water, but that’s of little consolation to people who are thirsty and would very much like a cold glass to drink. This should worry everyone who cares about the future of our planet because it’s clear Musk is so removed from the experience of people who aren’t running five companies or worth hundreds of billions of dollars that he is only able to see things at a high level. As a result, he misses the effect of decisions on everyone else.
About Changing Twitter
“Since I’m like an avid Twitter user, I can detect that, like, something’s not right here,” Musk said. “And so that’s really why I entered that position.”
To say that Musk is an “avid Twitter user” is maybe the most obvious understatement ever. Musk is the most avid Twitter user, which explains why he wanted to buy it in the first place. It’s a thing that he very much loves and uses constantly.
The problem is, Musk is not a typical Twitter user, and yet, he assumes that everyone views–and uses–Twitter the same way he does.
The best analogy I’ve heard comes from Nilay Patel, the editor-in-chief of The Verge, who likens Musk’s buying Twitter to the person who is most addicted to cigarettes buying the factory.
Not only is he now able to get a constant hit of exactly the experience he wants at all times, he can’t help but think that all of the other users are happy because they too are just as addicted. The thing is, that’s not true.
The things that were “not right” for Musk aren’t necessarily the things that make the experience better for a large and diverse audience–which is exactly what Twitter needs to be successful. The changes Musk is making to satisfy his “avid Twitter user” addiction are driving away a lot of other high-engagement users, which invites the question of who exactly does Musk want to use Twitter?
Sure, there are some people who want to use Twitter. There are a lot of people who will use Twitter just because Elon Musk still uses Twitter and they really like Elon Musk.
Look, if you pay $44 billion for something that is definitely worth no more than half of that, is certainly your privilege to do whatever you want with it. It just doesn’t seem like a very good business model.
Ultimately, the reason these three things should concern everyone is pretty simple–it’s that Musk doesn’t see any of them as a problem. He thinks that spreading himself over a range of companies is a personal strength. He doesn’t grasp that his view of the world is missing the human element. He doesn’t see that designing Twitter according to his personal whim doesn’t make it better for anyone else.
I imagine that’s mostly because he surrounds himself with people who will reinforce whatever it is he already believes about a particular issue. That’s dangerous for any leader, but especially for one of the world’s richest people, who happens to lead several of the world’s most important companies, and is trying to do big things.